Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12: 3-5 CEB)
Ah, it’s Lent again! Are you giving anything up this year? Most of my coworkers, though not Christians, must know when Lent starts each year because they always ask me what I’m giving up. When they do this they often look at me like some strange, exotic animal who willingly put myself in a cage at the zoo. Its kind of….odd. At first I thought that this might be a good thing because usually after I tell them what I’m giving up, they usually ask me why in the world I would give up, oh, say candy and Coca-Cola, which is basically my life blood. Then I can talk to them about Lent and sacrificing and self examination before we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. It’s a witness moment!
But is it really? Maybe (probably) they just think I’m a weirdo. Now being a weirdo for Christ is perfectly ok. In fact I think I’ll start a new Twitter hashtag #weirdosforChrist. But is it possible that maybe over the last few years I’ve made Lent more about what I’m giving up and tracking my progress than about following Jesus on his journey to the Cross? Have I made Lent into a project?
The idea comes from the book “40 Days of Decrease” by Alicia Chole. It’s a book that challenges the reader to not just give up coffee and chocolate for Lent, but to give up things like complaining or other negative actions or thought processes. On the first day she challenges us to give up Lent as a project.
See, I’m a progress/achievement oriented person. In my job I have goals that I have to track each day, each week, and each month. Looking at the reports and checking off the progress makes my heart so warm that even John Wesley would be jealous (gratuitous Methodist reference). Tracking goals and evaluating performance is a project. According to Chole, we can end up looking at Lent like that too. How long did you make it before you cracked that first Coke open, a week? Did you make it all the way to Easter? How many pounds did you lose in the process? Did you actually manage to finish the devotional book?
I realized that often my Lenten observances are just like that. I get so busy checking off the boxes along the way that I forget where Jesus is in the midst of all of that. I get so busy tracking the physical objective that I lose track of the spiritual journey.
Which brings us to the reading above. Normally we don’t hear about this until Holy Week, but in her book, Chole picked this one for today. I think I see why, at least for me and what God wanted me to take from it.
Chole asks the reader to insert themselves in the story and think about the sights, sounds, and smells that you might experience. So I entered into the story of Mary anointing Jesus at Bethany.
I was reclining with Jesus, the disciples, and Lazarus, there at the table. I smelled the wonderful food that Mary and Martha had prepared and could taste the wine on my lips. I pictured myself taking to Lazarus about what it was like to be dead. I mean, come on, you wouldn’t? Out of the corner of my eye I see Mary enter the room. She walks up to Jesus carrying a huge jar of expensive perfume, which she proceeds to dump on the feet of Jesus. Then she dries his feet off with her….hair.
What in the world?
The scent of the perfume quickly fills the air in the room. I start to cough at the strength of the smell, along with the disciples and Lazarus, Geez, couldn’t she have waited until we were done eating? I guzzle some wine trying to flush the scent from my palate. Finally, the man sitting on my right side bolts up from the table, coughing a bit, and then says in a strident voice, “What is she doing? That stuff was expensive! Do you know much that is worth? We could have sold that and given it to the poor! How could you allow that, Jesus?”
That man is Judas. The scripture says the reason that he’s so upset is really because he wants to pocket some of the money for his own gain, but the disciples didn’t seem to realize that, so in this story, I don’t either.
In fact, I actually find myself kind of taking the side of Judas, which is a bit of a tough thing to admit. Come on, we definitely could have sold that and used it for a better purpose. We could have used the money to give to the poor sure. We could have have used it to further our ministry in any number of ways. I found my thoughts drifting back into my own time. We could have used that for Family Promise. We could have used that to make up the shortfall in the budget. We could have put that into the building fund, we could have bought a year’s worth of Sunday School material or bought supplies for the church community garden. In short, I could plug that money into one of my projects.
I find myself rising to speak and agree with Judas (yuck) but just as I pull myself up, Jesus speaks. It isn’t a scolding. It’s a look of pity on his face and his voice betrays the fact that he knows I still don’t get it. He looks into my eyes, the eyes of the Human One* stabbing into my soul. “Brandon, you will always will have poor people to help. You’ll always need extra money for the Sunday School Program, you will always have things at the church that need to be fixed. You don’t understand what an act of love this is. You don’t understand what’s going to happen on this journey.”
I sit down, baffled, unsure as what to say or even think. What does he mean?
There will always be another project, another goal, and often those goals and projects are perfectly noble, some even give glory to God. But what if I’m so busy keeping track of my projects and my ministry that I forget Jesus, that I forget that my life is a journey of following him and emulating him?
I do that. I do that a lot.
In just a few hours I’ll be attending Ash Wednesday services. Maybe you will be too. I invite you to join me in being fully present in that moment, that moment when the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday branches mark your forehead, and listen to the words that are spoken. Part of what we say at my church is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Take this moment to let the Gospel fill up your heart and mind, then you just might hear the voice of Jesus again saying “Come, follow me. Come with me on this journey. Lay your projects and other cares aside and walk with me. You may not understand where we’re going, but I promise I’ll be with you.”
May God bless us all as we undertake our Lenten journey
*Human One is the Common English Bible’s rendering of Son of Man.